- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Rae Armantrout on Writing, Poems, Language, and More


Happy birthday, Rae Armantrout! Here are some quotes from some of her interviews:


“In some sense we are talking to ourselves, maybe singing to ourselves. The very separation between ‘I’ and ‘Me’—a separation which is central to being a conscious subject—creates loneliness, I think. There is no escape from that.”


“I think our poetry should respond to the real world. To respond to something, you have to acknowledge it. My poems interact with this world. They are the medium through which I bring consciousness to bear on it. If I don’t write, I find myself taking things for granted which shouldn’t be taken for granted. I hope my readers, too, will become more consciously engaged with certain aspects of the world in which we find ourselves.”


“I find the instabilities of language both troubling and attractive…It goes beyond the comically quirky, doesn’t it? Obviously, words may sound alike because they come from one root, or they may sound alike and be unrelated. This raises an important question: what is more crucial than whether or not we can successfully attribute meaning to pattern? And patterns involve similarity and difference. In fact, this is where all sentience begins. In other words, ‘This looks a lot like the spot where I cached my nuts last fall.’ For good reason, the intimation of resemblance is seductive—though the brute fact of similarity, two peas in a literal pod, can be pretty irritating. For me this issue is like a sore tooth I keep running my tongue across.”


“There is no similarity without difference; there is no difference without similarity. Together similarity and difference are the basis for sentience. We may observe problems with metaphorical thinking, but we can’t abandon metaphor.”


“I create metaphors for metaphor, meta-metaphors, if you will.”


“Whatever its dangers or limitations, I think metaphor is somehow (mysteriously) necessary for human thought.”


“It turns out that galaxies wouldn’t hold together without dark matter. And life needs death. Etcetera. That is no great comfort when you face your own death, of course. It’s just a simple fact that the world, your neighborhood, for instance, will look the same to your neighbors right after you die as it did just before. We might say that’s the real world, the one we can never know. This is the kind of thing you contemplate when you have time and occasion to think about death—or at least it’s the kind of thing I thought about.”


“I treat autobiographical material the way I treat anything else. I write about what seems noteworthy, in a literal sense, to me at the moment.”


“I am drawn to what seems puzzling or peculiar, wherever I find it.”


“I like to put material from very different sources, different levels of discourse, in contact with one another to see how they interact. I don’t generally indicate the source of the material. It could be from a dream or from the newspaper! If you can’t tell the difference, I think that’s interesting. I do sometimes include things that are very personal—but I never assume they are unique to me.”


“I don’t think poets really write directly for the reader, though they do hope to be read.”


“I’m more interested in what poetry and science have in common than in the ways they’re different. The ways they’re different are obvious and many. Scientist prove things and poets do not. Mathematical and scientific truths must be repeatable by peers, etc. On the other hand, both poets and scientists try to describe the world. Both deal in metaphor. Poets are aware of metaphor; scientists are aware of it some of the time but not always. At least that’s my impression. Both scientists (or mathematicians) and poets are attracted by beauty and especially the beauty of form or symmetry. I am always very moved by the way scientists sometimes say (for instance when they speak of string theory) that there must be some truth to it because the math is ‘so beautiful.’ They believe as Keats wrote, that, on some level, ‘Truth is beauty/beauty truth.’ Despite this, scientists know that what they ‘know’ is provisional. It can be contradicted by the next experiment. They live with uncertainty. I feel that my poems also live with uncertainty. I often write about what puzzles me. The conclusions I reach are consciously provisional. Sometimes they are immediately overturned in the next stanza. Scientists and poets are lured by something beautiful they sense in the world, something that (thus far at least) no formula, mathematical or verbal, has been able to fully capture.”


“I like the idea that we can make new, provisional entities out of whatever the world throws at us. I think that’s how we create our personalities—and it’s how I write poems.”


“I think identity is a kind of balancing act and part collage, part balancing act. I mean, we have all of these voices in our heads, our parents’ voices, newscasters’ voices, pundits’ voices, you know, these voices on the radio, and so how much do we incorporate and how much do we reject? So it’s a balancing act but someone has to be doing that balancing and I guess that’s the self but it’s tricky to, you know, pick out what is self and what is other, I think, or if that distinction even make sense.”


“I’m drawn to edges, borders, say, between being and non-being, life and the inanimate, continuing and going on…”


“I don’t think there’s a real or clear distinction to be made between private and public. As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s nothing more personal than telling your dreams, supposedly, but what if you dream about a popular actor? Your dreams are culturally inscribed (of course). I don’t like to compartmentalize. I don’t think we can separate feeling from thinking. I would say all of my poems start with feelings—but I can have a feeling about something I read in a book about physics! And my reading is part of my experience. So, that’s my usual position on these matters.”


“It’s a bit scary when you realize that you have no idea what other people are thinking. On the other hand, the only way that we know the world is real is because it’s unpredictable.”


“And whenever I’m feeling that something is new and strange and I’m puzzled by it, what I do is write and that’s just kind of the way I process experience. And as long as I’m doing that, I know I’m alive.”


“What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as scumble, pinky, or extrapolate. What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words? Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue. What if ‘of’ were such a hot button, scumble of bushes, what if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name?”


“I think language is never neutral. Every word is fraught somehow…”


“I think we continue to find meaning(s) as we go along, but we never arrive at a final synthesis. The dissonances and consonances will keep coming as long as we’re alive, thinking, reading and writing.”


“If you think your poems deal in clichés, try exaggerating and exploring (exploding) those clichés. That will loosen you up. If you think your poems are too direct, try making them more direct. Make them so direct they scare you. Don’t write about what you think, or what you think you know, write about what puzzles you. It’s always worthwhile to ask a real question, in whatever form.”


“As you well know, we don’t go into poetry for the money or the glory. We become poets because we’ve been seduced by language and we keep returning to the scene of the crime.”


“There is no one correct way to write poems! I think you sense that but you can’t quite let yourself believe it. You have to follow your own impulses.”


“When I finish a poem, I allow myself a bit of time to recuperate, as it were. For a week or two, I have a casual attitude about writing. If an idea hits me, of course, I’ll pursue it. If not, fine. Then, after about two weeks, if no writing has surfaced, I start to feel nervous. Then I go looking for it. I do that really by just maintaining a certain state of alertness. I’ll read things that might get me going. I like to read science articles or books on science to experience the strangeness and sheer scale of the very large or the very small. And I’ll sit outside somewhere with a notebook too, either in my garden or in a public place like an outdoor cafe, and make notes on the things I see. The notes may be pretty pedestrian, no pun intended, but, I find that, if I keep at it long enough, something will emerge. Knock wood.”


“Maybe…I spin myself around violently in the hopes that, if I disorient myself, I can see things from a new angle, catch a glimpse of what Lacan called ‘the Real.'”


“Now, what are the risks of becoming a poet? The first thing that comes to mind is that most people in America really see poetry as a joke or a sign of childish narcissism. And maybe they’re right! I am still reluctant to tell a stranger that I’m a poet. I can see that it makes them uncomfortable. So first you have to be willing to be ridiculous. Then, as I’m sure you know, you won’t make any money directly from poetry—or at least not much. You have to find some other sort of work – usually teaching. And you may tend to resent your day job because it takes up time that you could spend writing. So you risk being disrespected and feeling resentment. Is that scary enough?”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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